Review: “The Shepherd Leader” by Timothy Witmer

41BVBHa89VL._SX312_BO1,204,203,200_I’m always eager to read insights on pastoral leadership, and especially glad to see another book advocating that the church be pastored by a team of elders. The author of this book is obviously knowledgable and has a heart for the local church. He gives a capable defense of biblical eldership, and also includes a helpful explanation of the historical development of the church. Witmer begins with local churches being pastored by elders (the New Testament model), and shows how this morphed into the Roman Catholic episcopal model. He then describes in great detail the polity changes in Calvin’s church in Geneva and the Presbyterian church in Scotland.

The heart of the book is a section divided into four chapters, each on a different aspect of shepherding the church: knowing the sheep, feeding the sheep, leading the sheep, and protecting the sheep. Along the way, the author includes both biblical principles and practical applications. As with any book that makes practical suggestions, some will resonate and some won’t, but it can be worthwhile to think through (and discuss) any of them.

Potential readers should be aware of the theological context from which this book comes. The author is a professor at Westminster Theological Seminary in Philadelphia, served as a pastor of a Presbyterian church (PCA) for more than twenty-five years, and writes from a distinctly Presbyterian perspective. I think it’s entirely appropriate for our approaches to ministry and church leadership to be grounded solidly in our theology. But, because of this, it’s helpful to know the theological presuppositions of an author whose book we may read. For instance, one will notice Calvinistic assumptions peppered throughout this book. This doesn’t make the book unusable for non-Calvinists, but it’s helpful to know about this context beforehand.

A more salient concern is the specifically Presbyterian model of eldership put forward in this book. As a Presbyterian, Witmer sees a sharp dichotomy in the church eldership between lay “ruling elders” and professional, seminary-trained “teaching elders” (often referred to as “pastors”). Most non-Presbyterians would view this as based on Presbyterian tradition rather than scriptural exegesis. The only passage that comes anywhere close to this idea is 1 Timothy 5:17. In my view, and the view of a great many others, this text simply does not establish two distinct kinds of elders. All elders lead and are able to teach; some elders lead well (whether because of gifting, devotion, or availability); some of the elders who lead well (“especially those who…”) devote themselves to studying the Word and teaching. To somehow conclude from this the normative need for “ruling elders” who don’t publicly teach and “teaching elders” who don’t rule is to go far beyond the text itself.

And this problematic distinction among the elders leads to other problems. It doesn’t take long to begin seeing in this book an expectation that each church will have one “teaching elder” (despite the fact that 1 Timothy 5:17 refers to plural elders doing this teaching). It also becomes apparent that this teaching elder is often referred to as the pastor, so it’s not a big step to later references in the book to “the pastor” and “his elders.” By introducing a distinct classification of the elders that is not warranted by the text of Scripture, those who hold this model end up militating against the very plural shepherd (i.e. pastor) model they intend to defend and practice. Because of this prominent deviation from what I understand to be biblical eldership, I can’t recommend this book.

Using study Bibles: Two dangers to avoid

MSC1401AI’m a big fan of study Bibles. I’ve written about them before and shared many of the benefits of using a study Bible. These resources are especially helpful for those just beginning to study the Bible for themselves. It’s like having a teacher right there with you helping you understand more of the background and the context for biblical books and passages. Study Bibles can be invaluable when beginning to more deeply understand the meaning of Scripture.

But, as with many other useful tools, there are potential dangers when using study Bibles. It’s good for people to know how to use study Bibles in a proper, healthy way—and how not to use them. Here are two danger we want to avoid:

Referring to the study notes every time we read the Bible.
The notes in study Bibles can be incredibly helpful. When we’re having trouble understanding what a certain passage is saying, we can turn to the corresponding note and get more insight into its meaning. But these notes are so helpful, we can begin to automatically stop after each verse and read its note. That’s not a bad thing if we’re studying a certain section in depth, but we need to remember that the Bible is meant to be read. We’re supposed to get a feel for the whole book, to follow the author’s flow of thought. This is really hard to do if we get bogged down reading each study note.

I was recently reading Don Quixote. This classic book was written in the early 17th century, and it refers to things that would have been meaningful to people living in the same time and place as the author, but didn’t mean anything to me now. The edition I was reading included a lot of footnotes. These footnotes were helpful in explaining the historical meaning and significance of these references. The problem was the more I checked the notes, the more I fell out of the rhythm of the story and language of the author. I began to lose the “forest” of the author’s story for the “trees” of the historical references.

So what do we do? Fortunately, this isn’t an either/or choice. We need to do both! Let’s say you’re going to read Paul’s letter to the Galatians. Here’s one way to approach it: Read the introductory information in your study Bible so you have a good, basic understanding of who is writing, to whom they’re writing, the historical and spiritual context of the letter, etc. After that, read through the actual letter without stopping to read the study notes. There will probably be much you don’t understand, but you’ll begin to get a feel for the whole letter and how it fits together.

Dense-forestAfter this, go back and read the letter bit by bit, especially digging into the passages you don’t understand. The study notes can now help you clarify what these passages mean and what they don’t mean. Once you have a fairly solid comprehension of the shorter passages in the book, read the whole letter again in one sitting. You’ll then see even more clearly how it all flows togethers. But remember, we don’t learn everything about a passage of Scripture by studying it once (or a hundred times!). Studying the Bible is a lifelong process of gaining understanding and wisdom. The Scriptures continually draw us closer to God and help us grow more like him.

Using a study Bible as our authoritative standard for what is right and true.
[This builds on my previous post.] Have you ever been part of a Bible study, and every time a question was asked someone in the study simply read the note in their study Bible? (Or maybe you’ve been the person doing this!) Sometimes we assume that the notes in our study Bible should settle the discussion. After all, they were written by experts, right?

I said above that a study Bible was like having a teacher right there with you helping you understand the context and meaning of the Scriptures. And this is true. But remember, no human teacher is infallible and free from error. The Bible itself is divinely inspired and inerrant—but the study notes are not! They’re very helpful, but they’re not part of the inspired text of Scripture. We need to keep this distinction clear.

Once we know this, it won’t throw us for a loop when people have two different study Bibles with two different views on a particular passage! The study Bible notes are written by people, and sometimes people disagree about what a biblical passage means. Even more importantly, sometimes people can be wrong.  Study Bible notes are there to help us understand the meaning of Scripture; they’re not there to determine for us the meaning of Scripture. We shouldn’t arrogantly think we can study the Bible in isolation and just ignore what all other Christians have studied in the Scriptures for the last 2000 years. But we do still need to do some thinking for ourselves!

The more experienced we become in studying the Bible, the more we’ll be skilled in comparing and sorting out the different views on certain passages. We need to be like the Bereans in Acts 17:11:

And the people of Berea were more open-minded than those in Thessalonica, and they listened eagerly to Paul’s message. They searched the Scriptures day after day to see if Paul and Silas were teaching the truth.

Notice these people listened eagerly to the message, but then did the work of studying to confirm the truth of what they’d been taught. This is how we can find balance when we’re taught or when we read things like the notes in our study Bibles. We need to ‘listen eagerly,’ but then ‘search the Scriptures to see if what we’re taught is the truth.’ Study Bibles provide many wonderful resources, but be careful not to turn them into some kind of idol or absolute authority. A note in a study Bible is a helpful tool for studying the Word of God, but it’s not itself the Word of God.

And, once again, this ‘listening eagerly and searching the Scriptures’ is an ongoing, lifelong process for the believer. Learning how to use a study Bible is really just the beginning. Welcome to the adventure!

No Christian gurus: Let’s not turn good teachers and resources into idols

bhagwan-shree-rajneeshI’ve had the privilege of helping train young leaders and teachers. It can be a little dizzying for these new leaders as they begin to access all the myriad books and resources we have available to us today. I’m often asked who is my “go-to” writer. Who is the one source on whom I can always rely? Or which is the one commentary series that is unfailingly solid and reliable? What they’re looking for—even if they haven’t really thought this through—is a recommendation for an authoritative standard. They want the simplicity of having one source for accurate biblical interpretation, and the ability to measure everything else by this one flawlessly reliable standard.

It’s not hard to find examples of believers who make one pastor or leader their primary teacher and subtly (or not so subtly!) evaluate everything else based on this leader’s views. It might be “Piper cubs” who view John Piper as the obvious standard for right doctrine and practice in the church today, or those who look to John MacArthur, or Jack Hayford, Wayne Grudem, Charles Stanley, RC Sproul, NT Wright, Mark Driscoll (until recently), etc., etc. Or it might be those who favor a teacher with the sheen of a century or two (or at least decades) of being quoted and referenced, like John Calvin, John Wesley, Jonathan Edwards, AW Tozer, Charles Spurgeon, CS Lewis, etc. But regardless of the specific writer/teacher to whom they look, the pattern is strangely similar. Whenever theology or ministry is discussed, this person invariably appeals to the views of their teacher. They look to him (or her) as a standard of what is right and healthy for the church.

Now, I’m not at all accusing these teachers and leaders of seeking this kind of devotee. I’m not blaming the leaders themselves for this phenomenon. But, sadly, this often happens to those who strive to be faithful teachers and leaders. What they intend to be helpful thoughts and insights for the church, others misuse to place these teachers and their works on a pedestal. I can almost see these overly revered teachers responding as Paul and Barnabas did in Acts 14, pleading with the people not to do this.

The Christians doing this aren’t intending to misuse or misappropriate anyone’s ministry; they’re usually seeking to be conscientious, faithful disciples of Jesus. So, just to be clear: What exactly is wrong with looking exclusively or primarily to one human teacher? There are two big problems I see:

Human teachers are not infallible.

Of course, Christ is an exception to this because he isn’t merely human but also divine. And his specially-appointed apostles were able, under divine inspiration, to speak and write the teaching of Christ with his authority. But we don’t accord teachers today this same level of authority (or at least we shouldn’t).

UnknownEven the apostle Paul didn’t expect the people to automatically accept anything he taught simply because he was an apostle. He strongly warned the Galatian churches against receiving any other gospel, even if it was proclaimed to them by Paul and his associates or even an angel from heaven (Galatians 1:8). The Bereans didn’t automatically accept Paul’s teachings, but first checked them out to make sure they were scriptural. And they were commended for this (Acts 17:11). The people were given the responsibility to scripturally evaluate what they were taught.

The fist time it happens can shock and disturb us. We’re reading or listening to the teaching of a parent, a pastor or favorite teacher and we suddenly realize, ‘. . . I just can’t agree with that!’ Of course, we shouldn’t arrogantly look for details to pick apart, but it shouldn’t surprise us if we occasionally, humbly disagree with even a noted writer (that is, unless we expect them to be completely without error). I think God mercifully allows these infrequently different viewpoints so we won’t rely exclusively on one lone teacher. This kind of over-reliance can be dangerous.

But when we, in our opinion, have found an error, this isn’t necessarily cause for us to reject a teacher or commentary either. We can’t expect inerrancy anywhere but in God’s Word itself. We must all endeavor to accurately interpret and teach the Bible, but we must also be patient with each other when we don’t do this perfectly every time. Some of us are far too eager to put someone on a pedestal, and then when they show any imperfection we gleefully knock them back down! This leads to our second problem:

We can put a teacher or leader in the place of God in our lives.

Now, this might sound too strongly worded. Sure, maybe we’re sometimes guilty of relying too much on a particular pastor or teacher, but is this really idolatry?! ‘I mean, I may be listening to only one guy, but he is teaching the Bible after all.’ But let’s think about this. If I evaluate everything by one pastor’s teaching of Scripture, am I really trusting the Bible or am I trusting this one individual’s interpretation of the Bible? Am I seeking God’s instructions in Scripture, or Charles Stanley’s (or John MacArthur’s, etc.) instructions about God’s instructions? Am I committed to the historic, biblical Christian faith or to the historic, biblical Christian faith as explained and clarified by NT Wright?

It’s not hard to see how this can become idolatrous. It can also be quite divisive, as I pit my favored teacher against that of another. And, if these merely human teachers really are fallible, the implication of relying on only one teacher is alarming. I would be binding myself to one teacher’s errors, and blinding myself to anything this teacher hasn’t seen.

So how do we avoid this? Let’s resist the false security of an authoritative standard other than Scripture itself. And let’s fight the inclination in ourselves toward hero-worship and exalting certain leaders. Let’s not identify ourselves with a particular teacher or group in opposition to other teachers or groups. Let’s be willing to learn from any mature Christian leader or teacher, even if we disagree with them on some issues. And when you encounter a teacher or leader who refuses criticism or evaluation, but seeks to draw disciples after themselves (Acts 20:30)—run!

studygroupOne final reminder to those who are teachers and leaders: Don’t be surprised when people want to look to you as their authoritative standard. We need to be vigilant, ready to put a quick and decisive stop to this. Years ago in a Bible study, the discussion turned to a controversial issue. A young man looked to me and asked, “What do we believe about that, Curt?” I smiled and responded, “I know what I believe about that, but I don’t have a clue what you believe about it!” I went on to explain that he needed to know what he believed and why. We don’t want to make the people dependent on us, but on Christ. We need to take every opportunity to point them back to the Scriptures, to not just give them answers but teach them how to find the answers in God’s Word for themselves. Let’s not make any teacher or leader into some little tin god, and let’s not allow anyone to make us into one. Let’s be, and make, disciples of Christ and Christ alone.

Open church meetings?: Misapplying 1 Corinthians 14:26

jriordan26z-eDoes the Bible teach that we should have completely open, spontaneously Spirit-led church meetings where everyone contributes? Many would say “Yes!” and point to one specific passage to support this teaching:

What then shall we say, brothers and sisters? When you come together, each of you has a hymn, or a word of instruction, a revelation, a tongue or an interpretation. Everything must be done so that the church may be built up.

1 Corinthians 14:26, NIV

Now, we face a bit of a challenge with this verse because—by itself—it’s a little ambiguous (both in English and the original Greek). It could mean that, for the church to be built up, there needs to be freedom for all of these various ministry gifts to be shared with the body when we all come together. If this is our understanding, we would tend to read the last sentence as: “Everything must be done so that the church may be built up [emphasis added].” This is the way many do read the text (and the way I once read it). They then go on to discuss a number of serious implications for church ministry: e.g. the way church meetings are structured, the way they’re led, what size church gatherings should be for everyone to participate, etc.

But if this is what the verse means, we have an immediate problem. Because right after this verse, Paul begins to limit the involvement of people using their gifts during the church gathering. If the people were going to speak in tongues during the meeting, there could be only two or at the most three. If there was no interpreter, they must not speak in tongues. If anyone was going to prophesy during the gathering, again only two or at the most three could share with the rest of the body what was revealed to them.

At best, this is awkward. What of the fourth person who wanted to pray in tongues or share a prophecy? Was their gifting not part of the “everything [that] must be done so that the church may be built up”? What happened to the “each of you” that is apparently supposed to participate? This seems to be oddly contradicting what Paul just wrote. We need to take a closer look at verse 26 to make sure we’re interpreting it in context.

Let’s step back a little and get some more perspective. To whom is Paul writing this? To the church in Corinth. And what do we learn about these people in this letter? In the first few chapters, we see the Corinthians didn’t lack any spiritual gift, but they were very immature spiritually, fighting and quarreling with each other and causing division in the church. They seem proud of their giftedness, their wisdom and eloquence, but they’re really behaving like spoiled children. They’re fighting with each other over a number of different issues, and writing to Paul to settle these debates. Paul addresses each of their issues, every time correcting wrong thinking on both sides.

One of the issues they’re quarreling about is spiritual gifts. They’re eager to use their own spiritual gifts but suspicious of what others want to contribute. Paul responds to this problem in chapters 12-14 of 1 Corinthians. In chapter 12, he carefully explains to them that they are each part of the body, but they are each only one part of the body. They are all needed, and they all need each other. No part of the body is irrelevant, and no part of the body can function by itself.

Right in the middle of his response to this issue (in chapter 13), he interrupts his discourse on spiritual gifts to movingly insist on the preeminence of love—especially as it relates to using one’s spiritual gift in the church. The Corinthians were rich in giftedness but were decidedly lacking in love for each other. This is the heart of their problem.

This emphasis on love flows naturally into chapter 14. Paul shows here, over and over again, our criterion for what is done in the church gathering must be what most edifies the whole body. Why? Because of love! We love each other, and so we’re not seeking to gratify ourselves spiritually when we’re gathered with the rest of the church but to do only what will lovingly edify the whole body.

UnknownYes, we see in verses 1-25, this gift is good and that gift is good—but the most important thing is to edify the body, to lovingly build up each other. For the use of a gift to be edifying, it must be clear; it must be discernible and meaningful to those for whom it’s intended; the use of the gift must be orderly and not chaotic; it must be in harmony with the rest of the body; etc.

Now we come to verse 26. Paul tells them:

When you come together, each of you has a hymn, or a word of instruction, a revelation, a tongue or an interpretation.

Notice he doesn’t say ‘when you come together, you must each have . . .’ This isn’t an instruction, it’s an observation; it’s not prescriptive, it’s descriptive. Remember who he’s writing this to. These are people who are eager to show their gifting, but not so good at loving each other and edifying each other. Of course these people are all going to come with something they want to share!

He continues:

Everything must be done so that the church may be built up.

Now, again, the way this is worded can be understood in a couple of different ways. We can understand this to be saying: ‘You must do all of these things so that the church may be built up.’ Or it can mean: ‘You have all these things you want to share in the church gatherings. Whatever you do must be done so that the church may be built up.’ The emphasis would be on “so that the church may be built up” rather than on the “everything.” Which better fits the context of 1 Corinthians and especially chapters 12-14?

In the following verses Paul immediately begins limiting the gifting that will be shared during the church assembly. Paul’s main point in verses 27-40 is the same as it has been throughout the rest of the chapter. He’s not saying: ‘Here are a couple of restrictions, but otherwise everyone go for it!’ The emphasis he has come back to again and again throughout this chapter is: ‘Do what is most edifying for the body.’

Why should only two or three speak in tongues or prophecy? Because any more wouldn’t be edifying to the whole church. Why shouldn’t someone speak in tongues if there wasn’t an interpreter? Because it would only edify the speaker and not the whole body. Why must prophecies be evaluated? To make sure the content is true and edifying. So is Paul only restricting the use of these two gifts? No, the Corinthians were fighting specifically about tongues and prophecy. So, throughout chapter 14, Paul continually uses these particular gifts to illustrate his repeated point: The edification of the whole church is more important than everyone expressing their Spirit-gifting in the public gathering.

I appreciate the way the NLT translates this verse, making it very clear:

Well, my brothers and sisters, let’s summarize. When you meet together, one will sing, another will teach, another will tell some special revelation God has given, one will speak in tongues, and another will interpret what is said. But everything that is done must strengthen all of you [emphasis added].

I’m not endorsing everything done in traditional church services. (That’s a different post.) But we need to see how Paul concludes this whole section. He affirms for the Corinthians the great value of both tongues and prophecy. (Does he affirm these gifts for us today? That’s another post!) And then ends by instructing “be sure that everything is done properly and in order [14:40].” This is a clear command. But, as we’ve seen, to use verse 26 as some kind of command for open, spontaneous church meetings is to take the verse out of its context and misinterpret and misapply it. (And there is no other scriptural passage that teaches completely open church meetings.)

Ironically, some have forcefully insisted on this wrong understanding in ways that are Holding-Handsunedifying and divisive. By seeking to live out this passage without first making sure we correctly understand it, we can actually end up opposing the very message of this Scripture! Let’s make love our primary motivation in everything we do as a church. Let’s be ready and eager to use our spiritual gifting to bless and love others, but let’s make what is most edifying to the whole, gathered church body our standard for how we participate in and how we order our church meetings.

A biblical case for senior pastors?: Two questions

Most evangelical churches today have a senior or lead pastor. Can we make a solid, biblical case to establish this practice? For those who are part of a church that has both elders and a senior/lead pastor, here are two questions I invite you to answer:

Why do you have elders?

In my experience, many respond to this question with a robust, thoroughly biblical explanation of the role of elders in the local church. Our churches must have elders because of the clear teaching of Scripture, they insist. They frequently describe the normative need for elders in each church, the plurality of elders, the pastoral nature of the ministry of elders, etc.—drawing directly from clear New Testament passages—in ways that might cheer the hearts of the strongest proponents of biblical eldership. But then we ask the follow-up question:

Why do you have a senior/lead pastor?

scratching-head. . . ummm . . . . . . There can be a long pause at this point. We sense the need for a similarly robust, equally biblical explanation for this (presumably) key role . . . but it seems surprisingly difficult to find. One can rely on a pragmatic response: ‘There has to be one key leader, you know.’ Or we could resort to conjecture or speculation: ‘Well, the New Testament church had strong, prominent leaders, so . . .’  Or we can just blindly follow tradition. But I can’t seem to find anyone presenting a strong, clear, biblical case for the normative senior/lead pastor. Any takers?

Review: “40 Questions About Elders and Deacons” by Benjamin Merkle

0004464_40_questions_about_elders_and_deaconsThis book is a helpful resource and a welcome volume on the pastoral leadership of the church. Tom Schreiner wrote the foreword, and he doesn’t mince words when it comes to explaining the importance of this subject:

“The church is not a human institution or idea. The ordering of the church is not a matter of our wisdom or preference. The church is not a business where the brightest executives brainstorm on how it should be organized. Too many conceive of the church as a human organism where we innovatively map out its structure. God has not left us to our own devices. He has given us instructions on the nature and design of the church in His inspired and authoritative Word. To jettison what God says about the church and supplant it with our own ideas is nothing less than astonishing arrogance.”

Merkle doesn’t shy from emphasizing this significance either. He cautions that unbiblical models of church leadership can lead to unbiblical church leaders, and describes how this affects the nature of pastoral ministry and also the life and health of the church body. He effectively shows from Scripture that God intends for the local church to be pastored by a council of elders and why the common practice of distinguishing a senior or lead pastor from the elders is not biblical.

As you might have guessed from the title, this book is divided into 40 questions, each of them addressing a specific question regarding elders and deacons. (Technically, there are 39 questions since the author devotes two chapters to one of the questions.) This book is well-written, and I don’t see any reason why most people won’t read it from cover to cover. But the way it’s organized makes it especially helpful for those who need to quickly locate an answer to a particular question.

It’s difficult to think of a pertinent question the author doesn’t cover. The first few chapters explore church polity in general. He explains how the New Testament terms “elder” and “overseer” (or “bishop”) refer to the same church office. Merkle notes that while most evangelical pastors and scholars would agree with this conclusion, it’s all too rarely applied today in the local church. He does a great job of describing the different forms of church leadership in their historical contexts, and showing scripturally why Acts 15 doesn’t support the episcopal or presbyterian models. I deeply appreciate the strong stand he takes against making a distinction between the elders and a pastor or senior pastor.

The next chapters focus on the role of the elder. This is excellent material, and the author makes it accessible and understandable. He devotes one chapter to Timothy and Titus, nicely clarifying the apostolic nature of their ministries. In the following section of the book, Merkle examines the qualifications for elders. I thought his treatment demonstrated extensive knowledge of the material, spiritual wisdom and balanced application. He capably handles questions regarding the “husband of one wife,” whether an elder must be married and whether his children must be believers. To require that an elder—even one who serves as a primary teacher/preacher—have a seminary degree is to go beyond God’s standards for elders and to artificially add our own. The author explains this. He spends three chapters discussing whether women can be elders, and his handling of the key biblical passages is superb, particularly his distinguishing between cultural applications and transcultural principles. I also appreciated his explanation of the difference between prophecy and preaching. Some have mistakenly assumed that prophecy is preaching, and this has led to ministry practices that are confusing and unhealthy.

With questions 21-28 Merkle moves to the plurality of the church elders. He points out that the ‘one elder per house church’ idea is purely conjectural, not found in Scripture, and that we shouldn’t base our polity on such speculative ideas. He shows the clear, consistent biblical model of a plurality of pastoral elders in each church, and also the complete lack of scriptural examples or precedent for a sole or senior pastor. He discusses practical issues such as whether there should be a fixed number of elders and if the elders should require unanimous consensus when making decisions, giving pros and cons for each practice. The author describes real advantages to plural pastoral ministry, reasons why more churches aren’t structured this way, and gives some helpful thoughts on transitioning to this kind of leadership model. He warns against using terms such as “lay elder” or “lay pastor,” and also cautions about having too little overlap between the church elders and the staff, essentially creating a third church office. (I think many large churches with an eldership structure need to seriously consider this last point.) In this section, Merkle makes a statement I find to be true and a cause for concern:

“The organizational structure of many churches today bears almost no resemblance to the pattern found among the New Testament churches.”

That should give us all pause.

Questions 29-33 cover more practical issues concerning elders such as: How should elders be selected? How long should they serve? Should they be ordained? etc. In chapters 34-40, Merkle examines the role of the deacon. And I suppose this is as good a place as any to note a few of the author’s minor points with which I would disagree. Scripture never defines the exact role of the deacon, and I see great wisdom in this. Ministry needs arise that are important and that must be addressed, but which would draw the elders from their specific, God-given role. In such cases, it’s wise to appoint other church leaders to oversee these areas of responsibility. Because this will vary greatly from church to church, it makes perfect sense to me that the New Testament doesn’t give us a normative description of the ministry role of the deacon.

But Merkle disappointingly assumes that all deacons were focused on the physical needs of the people. He bases this (as others have) on the account in Acts 6:1-6. I don’t think anyone would disagree that caring for the physical needs of the people fits within the scope of ministry for deacons. But should the entire range of appropriate ministry options for deacons be defined and limited by this one, solitary example in a narrative account? Is it only the elders who can provide teaching and leadership to youth, children, women’s ministries(!), men’s ministries, etc.? Can only elders lead in counseling ministries or working with people with addictions? If these are legitimate ministry needs—with a need for leadership that often goes beyond the scope of those who pastor the whole church—and if these ministries somehow can’t fit within the role of the deacon, aren’t we back to a nebulous third church office that we wanted to avoid? If these people who are serving in some leadership capacity aren’t elders and they aren’t deacons, what exactly are they? How many categories of church leaders are there? I just don’t see how we can extrapolate a comprehensive pattern for ministry from one narrative detail that may very well have been occasional in nature. This is why many of us feel that all church leadership responsibilities beyond the specific role of the elders fall into the intentionally undefined role of the deacons, under the oversight of the elders of course. (I also find the author’s arguments against female deacons unconvincing.)

In a few places, Merkle expresses concern about an overly democratic model of congregationalism, and shows the benefits of reaching genuine consensus as opposed to congregational voting. He also repeatedly brings out the necessity of not just an informed congregation, but one involved with the actual process of reaching consensus. This all resonates with me, and is reassuring to many who have been turned off by the democratic model of church votes. But then, in other places, he seems to drag out the old, highly conjectural arguments that are usually used to support the democratic model. Some of these arguments represent the exegetical over-reaching that caused many of us to reject congregationalism in the first place. (I should clarify that I’ve returned to a modified, consensus-based form of congregationalism.) Not only are these arguments not necessary for his main conclusions, I don’t think they’re borne out by the texts. I found all of this confusing, even placing a few of his descriptions of the role of the church body in conflict with his described role for the church elders.

My final quibble involves two interrelated issues. Merkle feels that, since only elders are specifically tasked with teaching, the role of deacons therefore cannot include regular teaching as a specific matter of responsibility. He quotes D.A. Carson to support this even though Carson is not making the same point Merkle is. Carson rightly points out that deacons enjoy no “church-recognized teaching authority akin to that of the elders.” This is an important point, especially in churches that have elevated the role of deacons to essentially that of the church elders. But just because the elders authoritatively teach the church, why does this mean there can be no other leaders who teach regularly as part of their specific ministry?

In a similar way, Merkle cautions against using the term “pastor” to refer to any leaders in the church other than the elders. So, for instance, we shouldn’t designate a non-elder as a youth pastor or women’s pastor. But why not? All the elders are pastors, this is very true. But are only elders pastors? Is there to be no one else in the church with a shepherding gift and role? Is the youth pastor not pastoring the youth? Or the women’s pastor the women? the children’s pastor the children? If these people are serving in an authentically shepherding role, why not acknowledge this in our terminology? How is this out of harmony with the New Testament model? Again, yes, God designates the elders as those who pastor and teach the whole church. But where stands it written that they are therefore the only shepherds and teachers within the church? Why can’t the non-elder members of the church leadership team or staff—whether paid or voluntary—correspond to the biblical role of the church deacons? (Whether we call them deacons, pastors, ministers or something else would be a secondary issue.)

Despite these disagreements, which are relatively minor, I find this book to be extremely beneficial and useful to anyone wanting to better understand the biblical teachings on the pastoral leadership of the church. Highly recommended.

Review: “Pastoral Ministry according to Paul: A Biblical Vision” by James Thompson

imagesMany will pick up this volume expecting an entirely different book. Despite the title, there is nothing here regarding church elders, the appointment of leaders, church planting strategies, the role of the congregation in making decisions, etc. Any discussion of church polity is noticeably lacking. This is at least in part due to the scope of the author’s study. Whether by conviction or from a desire to secure the widest possible readership, Thompson limits his survey to the letters of Paul accepted by everyone, including the most liberal of scholars. This removes the pastoral epistles and such books as Ephesians and Colossians from consideration (as well as the narrative material in Acts describing Paul’s approach to pastoral ministry).

This truncating of the biblical sources—and of the subject of pastoral ministry—will be understandably off-putting to many evangelical readers. But it would be a mistake to skip this book altogether. The author may not include all of the aspects of ‘pastoral ministry according to Paul’ we would prefer him to, but what he does cover, he does very thoroughly. And the resulting insights he draws from these letters are rich with meaning for everyone involved in pastoral ministry. Thompson doesn’t devote much time to exploring the how of pastoral ministry, but he quite capably brings out the why. As the old saying goes: “If you understand the why, the how comes more naturally.”

Early in the book, we see the problem needing to be addressed. Scholars and church leaders frequently have differing, conflicting visions of what they mean by “pastoral ministry,” and this is even true of leaders within the same church tradition. As the author notes, too many churches today are seeking pastors who are a combination of Jay Leno, Lee Iacocca and Dr. Phil. Contributing to the problem is the unhelpful separation of theory and praxis in theological education. Thompson notes Edward Farley’s observation that all theological study was at one time designated “practical theology.” Now too many of the practical skills that are taught have no solid basis in theology, and too little theological study is applied to real life.

Thompson moves from this problem to a careful, detailed examination of six of Paul’s letters. He shows that, for Paul, “all theology is pastoral.” And throughout these epistles, we see one consistently repeated pastoral ambition: the formation and transformation of the church communities. Everything Paul does is centered on this purpose. His ultimate goal is to present to Christ the fully formed churches that were entrusted to him. This objective defines and determines his ministry. It also makes his ministry focus both corporate and eschatological:

The task of the Christian leader is to work with God in the construction of a building that will be complete only at the end.

This is a good reminder to us that pastoral ministry—the forming and transforming of church communities—is never “finished” in this lifetime. The author also repeatedly emphasizes Paul’s corporate understanding of the Christian faith, as opposed to an overly individualistic one.

The biblical theology (in the Pauline letters studied) is excellent, and the author has provided us with edifying and thought-provoking insights. Paul’s priority of community formation is a crucial one, and a priority we do well to emulate. Had Thompson chosen to include all of Paul’s epistles, he could have used the apostle’s own words in his letter to the Colossians:

So we tell others about Christ, warning everyone and teaching everyone with all the wisdom God has given us. We want to present them to God, perfect in their relationship to Christ. That’s why I work and struggle so hard, depending on Christ’s mighty power that works within me.

Colossians 1:28-29

What do we do with difficult Scripture passages?

I could tell he was reluctant to ask his question, but I encouraged him that any sincere question was welcome. He seemed shocked at himself for actually expressing his doubt aloud, but he blurted out anyway: “I just don’t understand how this kind of verse can be the Word of God!” The passage that was troubling him was Psalm 137:8-9:

O Babylon, you will be destroyed.
Happy is the one who pays you back
for what you have done to us.
Happy is the one who takes your babies
and smashes them against the rocks!

The first thing I said in response was that I would be troubled by anyone who didn’t find this passage disturbing! I could immediately see the relief on his face. He later explained that he was afraid we would think he was some kind of heretic or atheist because he dared to even wonder about a particular verse of Scripture. We went on to discuss this passage in its context. But before I share more with you about this specific case, I want to step back and look at this more general question: What do we do when we run across a passage of Scripture that really troubles us or even makes us doubt? How do we handle it when it seems the Bible might be wrong?

When facing such a problem, it’s easy to fall into one of two extremes. We can just rely on blind, irrational faith, insisting that if the Bible says it—no matter how illogical or silly it sounds—then it’s true. The problem with this approach is that we may be holding sacred our own mistaken idea of what the Scriptures are saying, not what the Bible actually communicates. (We’ll see some examples of this below.)

But then, at the slightest hint the Scriptures might be in error, we could also simply reject the Bible as inspired or infallible. We can assume that all the critics are right and the Bible is a merely human book, describing the beliefs of people in the distant past. The problem with doing this is that the Bible has a long track record of refuting its critics. (We’ll see some examples of this below also.) If we too easily reject the Scriptures, we might find ourselves rejecting the very Word of God.

So what do we do? It’s interesting that even Christians in the relatively early history of the church had to face difficult passages of Scripture. Sixteen hundred years ago, the pastor and scholar Augustine described how he approached these kinds of challenges. His methods are still sound for us today, and we’re going to look at each of his three suggestions. But we begin with a fourth step I’ve added (with which I’m sure Augustine would agree):

1. Pray
It often goes without saying, but the first step in studying the Bible—especially when struggling with something difficult to understand—should always be to pray. If the Bible was written through the divine inspiration of the Holy Spirit, then we need the illumination of the Spirit to properly interpret the Scriptures. We need to humbly ask God to help us understand the heart of what he’s telling us in his Word.

2. Check the translation
It’s easy for us to get the wrong understanding of a Scripture passage because of an unclear translation. This is especially true of older translations that use more archaic English. I love the King James Version. I grew up with it; it was the only Bible I knew for years. But I can’t tell you how many times people have come to me with a passage they don’t understand in the KJV. When I show them the passage in another, more clear translation, the response is usually, “Ohhhhhh, that’s what this means.”

For instance, many people are confused by Jesus’ desire to “suffer the little children [Matthew 19:14],” not realizing that today this would be expressed as “allow the little children” or “don’t prevent the little children.” So if you’re reading something that doesn’t make sense, try reading it in a different translation. Many times, reading the same passage in different words can help you better understand the passage.

3. Check the notes
Augustine would say ‘check the manuscripts.’ This sounds overly technical and even intimidating to many ordinary Christians today. Thankfully, we can all check the manuscripts; all it takes is reading the notes in our Bibles. If you check the little footnotes in your Bible, you’ll see a few of them that say something like: “The oldest and most reliable manuscripts do not contain this passage.” These notes refer to verses that the vast majority of biblical scholars agree were accidentally added to the text centuries after it was originally written. We know these passages shouldn’t be included as Scripture. Here’s an example from John 5:4 (from the KJV):

For an angel went down at a certain season into the pool, and troubled the water: whosoever then first after the troubling of the water stepped in was made whole of whatsoever disease he had.

This was apparently someone’s attempt to explain why the people were trying so hard to get into the pool. At first, this explanation was written in the margin, but it eventually was incorporated into the text itself. But—by comparing all the thousands of manuscripts we have available—textual scholars can ascertain the original reading and the spurious addition (and even determine the general timeframe when it was added). So we don’t have to accept this odd and superstitious reading as part of John’s Gospel.

Another example is the reference to handling snakes in Mark 16:18. Here again, practically all biblical scholars agree that this section of Mark was not part of the original. So after making sure you understand the translation of a difficult passage, check for notes to make sure it was genuinely part of the original text. (Anything that was added is likely to be problematic [like snake-handling], but be careful; just because a text is difficult doesn’t mean it’s not part of the original!)

4. Work to truly understand the passage
If you’ve verified that the translation actually means what it seems to mean, and there are no notes in your Bible indicating the passage isn’t authentic, then it’s time to push up your sleeves and do the work necessary to properly understand the passage. While the essentials of the gospel are crystal clear in Scripture, not everything is as easy to immediately grasp. Speaking of Paul’s letters to the churches, Peter wrote that “some of his comments are hard to understand [2 Peter 3:16].”

In passages such as John 6, we see Jesus teaching things to the people that were difficult to hear and accept. He knew that many of them were following him for superficial reasons, not because they understood the spiritual significance of what he said and did. So he would occasionally teach hard truths, to distinguish between those who had “ears to hear,” and those who weren’t willing to truly hear. We need to not reject a passage right away just because it disturbs or confuses us. We first need to make sure we accurately understand the passage.

In the passage we began with, Psalm 137:8-9, who is speaking? It’s not God. The author is one of the refugees from conquered, destroyed Jerusalem. He’s a Jew who now lives in the land of his conquerors: Babylon. He is overwrought with what has befallen his people and his homeland, and he longs for vengeance against the people of Babylon. He cries out for them to experience the same horrific fate they’ve perpetrated upon his people. The psalm is very expressive and even moving in places, but it doesn’t express the heart of God; it dramatically expresses the heart of these devastated Jewish refugees. Once we’ve done the work to understand the passage in context, it still disturbs us, but we don’t have to accept it as the will of God. [For more on this, see The psalms: Prayers to God that speak to us.]

An earned benefit of the doubt
We don’t want to fall back on a blind, subjective faith in Scripture. On the other hand, we need to realize how often the Bible has proven itself accurate against the attacks of the critics. A classic example concerns the existence of the Hittites. The Old Testament refers many times to these people, portraying them as a major power and sometimes foe of Israel. Not long ago, if you had suggested in a secular university that this biblical portrayal was historically relevant, you would have been laughed out of class. Everyone knew the Hittites were a biblical myth, at most a minor, insignificant local tribe. That is until a few decades ago, when archaeologists began uncovering confirmation of the Hittite empire. As it turns out, these Hittites had a rich, longstanding culture, they were dominant over a widespread territory, the other major powers of the region considered them a threat, and they existed during the same timeframe the Bible describes. Score one for Scripture.

This same kind of scenario has played out again and again. Many times the Bible has proven itself to be far more accurate than the supposed “experts.” This doesn’t mean we should just assume it can never be wrong, especially in our interaction with skeptics and unbelievers. But it does mean that none of us should too quickly dismiss the claims of Scripture because of the current consensus of skeptical critics. We need to resist the temptation of a knee-jerk reaction, either in support of a particular reading of the Bible or in opposition to it. Especially for those who are followers of Christ, we must:

Work hard so you can present yourself to God and receive his approval. Be a good worker, one who does not need to be ashamed and who correctly explains the word of truth.

2 Timothy 2:15

Believing the Bible series:

A matter of faith: Believing the Bible

The Bible: Are we really reading what they wrote?

Why we can trust the Bible

What do we do with difficult Scripture passages? [see above]

Revelation: The story comes full circle

We often refer to being ‘fed’ by God’s Word. You could even think of the various biblical genres as different kinds of food. To me, the letters to the churches are like a thick, juicy steak, something you can really sink your teeth into. (If you’re a vegetarian, maybe you could compare it to a savory veggie lasagna.) Some of the psalms are almost the equivalent of a sweet, creamy ice cream sundae. On the other hand, the genealogies or chapters of laws and regulations are often more like lima beans or brussels sprouts; we know they serve a purpose and are good for us, but they’re not the most enjoyable thing to eat!

I compare studying the book of Revelation to eating a crab (or maybe an artichoke). Imagine going out with friends to a seafood restaurant that specializes in crab—but you’ve never eaten crab before. The smell is different but somehow appealing, and people seem to be enjoying eating it . . . but how in the world are you supposed to get into this thing and find the meat?! This is the kind of challenge we often experience with Revelation. The book is strongly compelling to many believers, even to brand new Christians. But it also creates a lot of confusion. Just how are we supposed to crack this book open?

Adding to our desire to get a handle on this book is a potential blessing described right in the book:

God blesses the one who reads the words of this prophecy to the church, and he blesses all who listen to its message and obey what it says, for the time is near.

Revelation 1:3

This sounds like a book we want to understand, doesn’t it? Thankfully, there are some basic facts about this book that help us sort out what it’s all about.

Apocalyptic
If you’ve been with us through the rest of this series on studying the Bible, you’ve seen different kinds of biblical literature that are probably familiar to you. We still have letters today, and also history, legal codes, poetry and even proverbs. We can relate to these scriptural genres. But the book of Revelation is a kind of literature called apocalyptic, and this is not as familiar to us. We no longer have apocalyptic literature being written today, but it was fairly common in the 1st century. So what exactly is it?

Apocalyptic writings claimed to reveal the secrets of what would occur at the end of time. The biblical book of Revelation is not only apocalyptic, but also prophetic. These weren’t just some strange visions that John somehow got a glimpse of, they were given to him by God for the purpose of communicating them to God’s people. But there is a common characteristic of apocalyptic writing that we have to be very aware of when we begin to read and study the book of Revelation:

Symbolic
Apocalyptic writing was always highly symbolic. Very little was written clearly and literally, but symbolism was used throughout these writings to communicate their message. That’s the nature of this kind of literature, and this is what we should expect when we read Revelation. Is this what we find?

In the first chapter of Revelation, we’re introduced to seven gold lampstands, which we discover represent seven churches. Seven stars represent the angels of these seven churches. It doesn’t take us long to see that this book is filled with symbols that represent something important, but we need to recognize that most of what we read in Revelation was not intended for us to understand literally. These vivid, colorful descriptions represent things that are very real, but the descriptions are meant to be symbolic.

If you search through Christian art from the Middle Ages, you can find paintings depicting Christ returning with a sword protruding from his mouth. But all biblical scholars recognize that this sword (Revelation 19:15) is not to be understood as a literal sword, but as a symbol or representation of the Word of God. If we aren’t trying to interpret everything in this book literally, we’ll avoid a lot of confusion. For example, some of you may have heard attempts to understand, as literal, the scorpion-like locusts in Revelation 9:1-12 with gold crowns on their heads, faces like humans, hair like women and teeth like a lion. If we try to hard to interpret something literally that is meant to be symbolic, the results can be pretty silly—and we can miss the whole point of the elements in the prophecy.

This is challenging for many of us, because we’re accustomed to understanding the Bible literally. While the Bible includes metaphors and colorfully poetic expressions (as do most writings), everything indicates that the events recorded in Scripture are to be understood as actual, literal events. As a rule of thumb, we assume what we read in the Bible is literal unless something in the text indicates otherwise. In other words, it means what it says (just as we do today). With apocalyptic writing such as the book of Revelation (and parts of the Old Testament prophetic books such as Daniel), we have to turn this rule completely around: In Revelation we must assume that what we read is symbolic unless something in the text indicates otherwise.

Tied to the Old Testament
John (the author) makes specific references to the Old Testament over 200 times in the book of Revelation. The imagery he uses is almost always drawn directly from the Old Testament. This means the more familiar we are with the Old Testament, the easier it will be for us to understand the book of Revelation.

Not written in chronological order
You may have noticed there are many series of seven in the book of Revelation. In the first three chapters, we see seven churches. In the rest of the book, we find seven seals, seven trumpets, seven bowls, etc. If you’ve ever tried to fit all of these into chronological order, you may have become very confused. Here’s an example of why this is a problem. If you read in Revelation 6:12-17, you’ll see a description of what happens when the sixth seal is broken:

I watched as the Lamb broke the sixth seal, and there was a great earthquake. The sun became as dark as black cloth, and the moon became as red as blood. Then the stars of the sky fell to the earth like green figs falling from a tree shaken by a strong wind. The sky rolled up like a scroll, and all of the mountains and islands were moved from their places.

Then everyone—the kings of the earth, the rulers, the generals, the wealthy, the powerful, and every slave and free person—all hid themselves in the caves and among the rocks of the mountains. And they cried to the mountains and rocks, “Fall on us and hide us from the face of the one who sits on the throne and from the wrath of the Lamb. For the great day of their wrath has come, and who is able to survive?”

What is this describing? It certainly sounds like the very end, doesn’t it? But if we’re trying to fit Revelation into chronological order, we have a real problem because we still have seven trumpets and seven bowls to go. If you read the end of the series of seven trumpets (Revelation 11:15-19) and the series of seven bowls (16:17-21), they also sound like the very end. How do we make sense of this?

If you’re familiar with the Old Testament, this actually shouldn’t be so confusing. We often see in Scripture what the scholars call “recapitulation.” For instance, do you realize we have three accounts of creation in the first part of Genesis? What does the first sentence of the Bible say? “In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth.” That’s one complete (albeit very brief) account of creation. The rest of chapter one tells us the story again, this time describing in greater detail how God created and focusing primarily on the story from the perspective of the earth. Chapter two “recapitulates” the story, this time zooming in on the Garden of Eden and Adam and Eve.

The book of Revelation is doing something similar. When we study the seven seals, there is very little that ties these descriptions to the end of time until we get to the sixth seal. The seven trumpets seem to zoom in much closer to events of the very last days. They also grow in intensity, from the seals affecting one-fourth of the earth to the trumpets affecting one-third.  The seven bowls not only zoom in even closer to the time of the end, but there are amazing parallels between the trumpets and the bowls: how they affect the earth, seas, water, living things, the sun, bringing darkness, ushering in a great final battle, etc. And the bowls intensify from affecting one-third to everyone and everything.

This is just a brief taste of the parallels and patterns you’ll find in the book of Revelation. But if you don’t try to fit everything into some chronological order, you’ll avoid a lot of confusion and unnecessary exegetical gymnastics (that is, trying to fit square pegs into round holes to make everything fit).

The scope of the book
Throughout much of the history of the church, Bible scholars have debated the intended range and focus of this book. Some have felt that Revelation gives us only a very broad, generally encouraging theme of struggle and suffering, but ultimately of God triumphing. Others have protested that there seems to be much more rich detail in this book than would be required for a general, encouraging message of “God wins.” Some have thought what is described in Revelation is prophecy regarding events that have already occurred, while others see Revelation as being entirely fulfilled in our future.

More and more, students of Scripture are seeing Revelation as being, in a sense, all of the above. It is undeniably a figurative depiction of the struggle and suffering of God’s people and the ultimate judgment and triumph of God. And we can see where certain sections may very well point to things that have already occurred in history. But it seems just as clear that much of the prophecy in this book awaits fulfillment and, as we learned last week, prophecy often has a partial, immediate fulfillment and a final, complete, ultimate fulfillment.

Full circle
One of the most important things for us to do when reading Revelation is to see it from a ‘big picture’ perspective, in light of God’s master plan as revealed in Scripture. When we see Revelation in the context of the rest of the Bible, we find more wonderful parallels.

Genesis begins with creation. Revelation ends with new creation, a new heaven and a new earth. The first chapter of Genesis shows God systematically bringing order into chaos. In Revelation, we first see God removing his order and maintenance from his creation and allowing the encroaching chaos free reign (in essence, undoing much of Genesis 1), and then reestablishing his perfect and beautiful order. We go from the Tree of Life restricted from humanity in the Garden, to the Tree of Life freely given in the new Jerusalem.

Most importantly, we go from separation from God in Genesis—with the corresponding curse, decay and death—to complete restoration and reconciliation in Revelation. Heaven and earth as one (Revelation 21:3-5):

I heard a loud shout from the throne, saying, “Look, God’s home is now among his people! He will live with them, and they will be his people. God himself will be with them. He will wipe every tear from their eyes, and there will be no more death or sorrow or crying or pain. All these things are gone forever.”

And the one sitting on the throne said,

“Look,
I am making everything new!”

How to study the Bible series:

Which Bible version should I use?

The first three rules of Bible study

Why do we have to “study” the Bible?

Where are we?: Getting a feel for the bigger story

You’ve got mail: Opening the letters to the churches

Building bridges: Cultural differences in the letters to the churches

Following the story: God and his people, part 1

The heart of the story: Jesus

Following the story: God and his people, part 2

Acting on Acts: How do we apply Acts to the church today?

Should Christians obey the Ten Commandments?: Christians and the Old Testament law

The psalms: Prayers to God that speak to us

Walking with the wise: Learning from the Bible’s poetic wisdom

The prophets: God’s messengers, calling his people back

Revelation: The story comes full circle [see above]

The prophets: God’s messengers, calling his people back

So, you decided to read the Bible straight through from the beginning. (This isn’t the only way to read it, or necessarily the best. But for some reason we all seem drawn to read Scripture this way from time to time.) You slogged through all the genealogies and laws. You read carefully the historical stories and poetic writings.  And then you arrive at the prophets. A verse here and there may sound familiar, but most of it makes you wonder: What in the world is this all about?

If there’s any part of the Bible that’s difficult to simply pick up, read and understand, it’s the prophetic books. While there are brief snatches of history in some of the prophetic books, they are few and far between. This leaves most of what you’re reading without any immediate context. Those of you who’ve been reading our Taking Root studies for awhile will remember that we have a handy tool for just such times. A good study Bible will explain who the author was, to whom they were writing and why, and what the historical setting was. Without this background information, we’re not going to be able to understand what these books are all about. Even with this background information, there are a few additional tips that can be helpful when reading the prophets:

Historical setting
This week we’re discussing the Old Testament prophetic books. (We’ll explore the New Testament book of Revelation next week.) So these books are focused primarily on God’s interaction with the people of Israel. When Solomon died and his son Rehoboam assumed the throne, the nation of Israel was divided into two separate kingdoms: the northern nation of Israel and the southern kingdom of Judah. Very quickly, Israel fell into idolatrous worship of false gods. God eventually allowed them to be completely destroyed by the Assyrians.

Judah continued to be ruled by the line of David, and enjoyed the presence of the Temple in Jerusalem. As with Israel, the history of Judah also includes decline and idolatry, but interspersed with periods of repentance and reform. Their downward spiral took longer than their brothers and sisters to the north but they also were eventually conquered. Their beautiful capitol city and Temple were destroyed, and most of the surviving people were taken captive to Babylon. 70 years later, they were allowed to return to their home, rebuild the Temple and eventually restore the city of Jerusalem.

Confronting his people
Three weeks ago, we learned about the psalms in the Bible. We saw how the psalms are prayers to God, not always God’s words to us. But the prophetic books are very different. The prophets were people whom God specifically called to be his official messengers to his people. When they spoke their prophecies, they were speaking the words of God himself; they were quoting him verbatim. This is why we repeatedly see in the prophetic books some variation of the phrase: “These are the words of the LORD . . .”

Much of what God had to say to his people was direct confrontation:

The LORD gave another message to Jeremiah. He said, “Go to the entrance of the LORD’S Temple, and give this message to the people: ‘O Judah, listen to this message from the LORD! Listen to it, all of you who worship here! This is what the LORD of Heaven’s Armies, the God of Israel, says:

“‘Even now, if you quit your evil ways, I will let you stay in your own land. But don’t be fooled by those who promise you safety simply because the LORD’S Temple is here. They chant, “The LORD’S Temple is here! The LORD’S Temple is here!” But I will be merciful only if you stop your evil thoughts and deeds and start treating each other with justice; only if you stop exploiting foreigners, orphans, and widows; only if you stop your murdering; and only if you stop harming yourselves by worshiping idols. Then I will let you stay in this land that I gave to your ancestors to keep forever.

“‘Don’t be fooled into thinking that you will never suffer because the Temple is here. It’s a lie! Do you really think you can steal, murder, commit adultery, lie, and burn incense to Baal and all those other new gods of yours, and then come here and stand before me in my Temple and chant, “We are safe!”—only to go right back to all those evils again? Don’t you yourselves admit that this Temple, which bears my name, has become a den of thieves? Surely I see all the evil going on there. I, the LORD, have spoken!

“‘Go now to the place of Shiloh where I once put the Tabernacle that bore my name. See what I did there because of the wickedness of my people, the Israelites. While you were doing these wicked things, says the LORD, I spoke to you about it repeatedly, but you would not listen. I called out to you, but you refused to answer. So just as I destroyed Shiloh, I will now destroy this Temple that bears my name, the Temple that you trust in for help, this place that I gave you and your ancestors. And I will send you out of my sight into exile, just as I did your relatives, the people of Israel.'”

Jeremiah 7:1-15 

As you read through the prophetic books, you’ll also notice that sometimes God gave the people the opportunity to repent and avoid the judgment awaiting them. But other times, he let them know judgment was coming and that he would not relent. And it’s not just his own people whom he confronts; he has quite a bit to say to the surrounding nations as well.

Revealing the future
This is where it gets a little tricky. We’re used to assuming that every prophecy telling about the future is revealing our future. But that’s usually not the case in the Old Testament prophetic books. Much of the material from the prophets is simply God confronting his people and letting them know what awaits them if they don’t return to him. We also find prophecies concerning the first coming of Christ sprinkled throughout the prophetic books. For us, these prophecies are all concerning the past—although they still teach us about how God interacts with his people, and they serve to validate the earthly ministry of Jesus.

Yet there are also important passages that point to the very end of history and the culmination of all things in Christ. One of the interesting things about the prophetic books is that they often include prophecies regarding both what is past (for us) and what is still present—but the prophecies are in the same immediate context and not always easy to tell apart! Have you ever seen a mountain range in the distance while you’re traveling? It can seem as if two mountains are right next to each other, but when you get closer, you realize that a huge distance separates them. This is the kind of challenge we have when interpreting the prophetic books.

To see a great example of this, compare the prophecy in Isaiah 61:1-2 with Jesus’ reading of this prophecy in Luke 4:16-21. Do you notice how Jesus reads all of the prophecy except the last line: “. . . and with it, the day of God’s anger against his enemies”? Why is that? Because the last line is referring to when Christ comes in judgment, and this wasn’t yet occurring during his first coming.

Two authors
Another thing to remember about Scripture is that it actually has two authors—the human author and the divine Author. This means that the Author (Holy Spirit) could include meaning that the author (human) wouldn’t have understood. We can reach back to the psalms for a perfect example of this. When Jesus was on the cross, he cried out, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” The Jews would have immediately recognized this as a quote from Psalm 22. What’s amazing is that David wrote this psalm hundreds of years before crucifixion existed as a form of execution. Yet when you read the psalm he wrote, the similarities to the crucifixion of Jesus are astounding:

Everyone who sees me mocks me.
They sneer and shake their heads, saying,
“Is this the one who relies on the LORD?
Then let the LORD save him!
If the LORD loves him so much,
let the LORD rescue him!” . . .
My life is poured out like water,
and all my bones are out of joint.
My heart is like wax,
melting within me.
My strength has dried up like sunbaked clay.
My tongue sticks to the roof of my mouth.
You have laid me in the dust and left me for dead.
My enemies surround me like a pack of dogs;
an evil gang closes in on me.
They have pierced my hands and my feet.
I can count all my bones.
My enemies stare at me and gloat.
They divide my garments among themselves
and throw dice for my clothing.

Psalm 22:7-18 

There is nothing in this psalm that indicates David was speaking of someone other than himself. Obviously, he was writing figuratively about what his enemies were doing to him. But the language he uses is overly strong for what he was experiencing; it points beyond the immediate circumstance to something greater. And we see the fulfillment in the death of Christ. The Holy Spirit inspired David to write something that—though it had real meaning to him at the time—included a deeper meaning that David couldn’t have grasped then. (In another place, when Daniel asks for an explanation of the vision he’s seen, he’s essentially told, ‘Never mind, this isn’t for you’ [Daniel 12:5-13].)

Most of the prophecies we read in Scripture have some kind of fulfillment in relatively close proximity to the time of the prophecy. But as you read these prophecies, watch for elements that don’t fit, that were not completely fulfilled. Isaiah 13 is a prophecy about the destruction of Babylon, but as you read it you’ll see language that actually describes a final judgment at the very end. Many prophecies have an immediate, partial fulfillment but await(ed) an ultimate fulfillment either at Christ’s first coming or his return.

Ultimate restoration
The prophecies we read reveal a pervasive corruption and stubborn rebellion against God by his people. Through the prophet Isaiah (65:1-2), God said to them:

I was ready to respond, but no one asked for help.
I was ready to be found, but no one was looking for me.
I said, “Here I am , here I am!”
to a nation that did not call on my name.
All day long I have opened my arms to a rebellious people.
But they follow their own evil paths
and their own crooked schemes.

Through prophecy after prophecy, God warned them what was coming. But the people stubbornly wouldn’t listen. So God disciplined his people by allowing them to be conquered and humiliated. Jerusalem was laid waste, and the Temple was destroyed. But the good news is that he didn’t utterly reject them. Even while he was telling them of their impending judgment, he encouraged the people that he would one day restore them:

But this is what the LORD, the God of Israel, says: I will certainly bring my people back again from all the countries where I will scatter them in my fury. I will bring them back to this very city and let them live in peace and safety. They will be my people, and I will be their God. . . .

In the empty streets of Jerusalem and Judah’s other towns, there will be heard once more the sounds of joy and laughter. The joyful voices of bridegrooms and brides will be heard again, along with the joyous songs of people bringing thanksgiving offerings to the LORD.

Jeremiah 32:37-38, 33:10-11

But the prophecies of restoration and healing go beyond what God did for the people of Israel:

People from many nations will come and say,
“Come, let us go up to the mountain of the LORD,
to the house of Jacob’s God.
There he will teach us his ways,
and we will walk in his paths.”
For the LORD’S teaching will go out from Zion;
his word will go out from Jerusalem.
The LORD will mediate between nations
and will settle international disputes.
They will hammer their swords into plowshares
and their spears into pruning hooks.
Nation will no longer fight against nation,
nor train for war anymore.

In that day the wolf and the lamb will live together;
the leopard will lie down with the baby goat.
The calf and the yearling will be safe with the lion,
and a little child will lead them all.
The cow will graze near the bear.
The cub and the calf will lie down together.
The lion will eat hay like a cow.
The baby will play safely near the hole of a cobra.
Yes, a little child will put its hand
in a nest of deadly snakes without harm.
Nothing will hurt or destroy in all my holy mountain,
for as the waters fill the sea,
so the earth will be filled
with people who know the LORD.

Isaiah 2:3-4, 11:6-9

This isn’t just good news for the ancient people of Israel; it’s the wonderful hope for all of God’s people. This is the future we can all anticipate. Just as God disciplines and judges, so he will heal and restore.

How to study the Bible series:

Which Bible version should I use?

The first three rules of Bible study

Why do we have to “study” the Bible?

Where are we?: Getting a feel for the bigger story

You’ve got mail: Opening the letters to the churches

Building bridges: Cultural differences in the letters to the churches

Following the story: God and his people, part 1

The heart of the story: Jesus

Following the story: God and his people, part 2

Acting on Acts: How do we apply Acts to the church today?

Should Christians obey the Ten Commandments?: Christians and the Old Testament law

The psalms: Prayers to God that speak to us

Walking with the wise: Learning from the Bible’s poetic wisdom

The prophets: God’s messengers, calling his people back [see above]

Revelation: The story comes full circle